21-02-2024 Music 12611

Chasing the Coltrane: 10 toughest saxophone solos

Top 10 Hardest Saxophone Songs

Ever wanted to channel your inner John Coltrane or Sonny Rollins but find yourself hitting a wall of technique and complexity? You're not alone. The saxophone, while endlessly expressive, can push even seasoned players to their limits. Buckle up, saxophonists, because we're diving into the world of the Top 10 Hardest Saxophone Songs. This list isn't for the faint of heart, but for those who crave a challenge and aspire to mastery. Get ready to test your finger speed, explore advanced harmonies, and navigate demanding improvisational landscapes. Let's blow the roof off with these iconic (and notoriously difficult) saxophone solos!

10: Silhouette. (1988) Kenny G

His name may be synonymous with the smooth sounds of adult contemporary jazz, but make no mistake: Kenny G can play. Listeners seeking proof of this fact need only check out this title cut from the man’s fifth album, “Silhouette.” The song starts off pensively, and it’s true that “Silhouette” remains within a contemplative headspace throughout its runtime. However, the actual melodic note choices and phrasings utilized by Kenny G feel intentional and earned. To say it another way: it’s hard work sounding this smooth. Yet, “Silhouette” is darned impressive with how the intensity of its soloing gradually rises to the song’s final moments. From there, it’s off to the races as Kenny G sets that smooth sax on fire.

9: Caribbean Fire Dance. (1966) Joe Henderson

Joe Henderson is one of jazz music’s great tenor saxophone players. He’s also performed a wide variety of music over the years, from traditional bop to funky fusion. “Caribbean Fire Dance” is something of a bridge between Henderson’s classic style and the more contemporary approach he would take during the 1970s. The song burns with a Latin-infused intensity right from the jump, and immediately makes its mark. Henderson’s playing is lively and playful here, yet also with a smoldering fire that threatens to break through the song’s musical strata like magma. “Caribbean Fire Dance” is at once energetic yet menacing, moving through many different modes until it reaches a conclusion. Through it all, Henderson plays with abandon, and it’s just fantastic.

8: Deacon Blues. (1977) Steely Dan

Steely Dan is a musician’s band, the sort of gold standard by which the merit of their muscle is measured. And it helps that Steely Dan has also remained amazingly popular throughout the years, charting hits like this one from 1977. “Deacon Blues” may be a radio staple, but it’s also challenging from a saxophonist’s perspective. Donald Fagen and Walter Becker employed “Tonight Show” saxophonist Pete Christlieb to record a solo, a feat which reportedly only took Christlieb two takes. The end results certainly go for broke, serving as a high point for “Deacon Blues,” while also underlining how rehearsed and measured session side-men like Christlieb have to be, in order to work at Steely Dan’s level.

7: Eurydice. (1971) Weather Report

Wayne Shorter is a legend of the soprano saxophone, playing with greats like Miles Davis before co-founding what many feel is a definitive jazz fusion project: Weather Report. The group’s self-titled debut is a meditative and atmospheric affair that largely saves its heavier jams for the second side. “Eurydice” is the closer on that side, a tune composed by Shorter that exemplifies Weather Report’s untouchable musicianship. It’s a song that thrives on this push-and-pull between Shorter’s blowing notes and the rhythm section of drummer Alphonse Mouzon and bassist Miroslav Vitouš. “Eurydice” borders on dissonance, but stops short of sounding too free. Instead, Shorter’s playing takes the lead, while also finding time to dance and challenge Joe Zawinul’s electric piano. It’s great stuff.

6: Teeth. (1971) Soft Machine

The worlds of prog and jazz-rock have never shied away from employing saxophone within their musical arsenals. Frank Zappa’s “The Purple Lagoon” and “Whatever Would Robert Have Said?” from Van Der Graaf Generator are two great examples of this fact. However, it could be argued that England’s Soft Machine utilized the sax in a devastatingly challenging manner. Specifically, “Teeth” from the band’s “Fourth” album combines Elton Dean’s alto sax with Alan Skidmore’s tenor to create a dizzying, progressive jazz symphony. This is heady stuff, complex and mathematical, yet with an aggressive tunefulness that’s remarkably dense and forward-thinking. The sax solos of “Teeth” jam out with fuzz bass, electric piano and intense drumming to redefine what experimental rock could sound like in the 1970s.

10 Toughest Saxophone Solos

5: Giant Steps. (1960) John Coltrane

We’ve discussed a lot of jazz greats so far, but John Coltrane was truly a giant of the genre. Fitting, then, that this title track from Coltrane’s 1960 LP “Giant Steps” is up next. The song stresses easily the importance of Coltrane not only to jazz, but to saxophone players around the world. The man’s “A Love Supreme” album from 1965 may be rightly regarded as a landmark for spiritual jazz, but “Giant Steps” is right up there with some of Coltrane’s best work. The song features some mind-melting solos from ‘Trane and an improvisational feel. It’s high-energy at an amazingly elite level, and swings at a pace that leaves listeners breathless. Attempt “Giant Steps” if you DARE.

4: Donna Lee. (1947) Charlie Parker

The original version of “Donna Lee” may clock in at under three minutes, but don’t underestimate this jazz beast. The song is a bebop standard from Charlie Parker, and its 1947 version featuring Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Max Roach and Tommy Potter is the stuff of legend. “Donna Lee” is a murderer’s row of talent, and its composition, like another Parker tune, “Anthropology,” is intentionally lean. The song swings at a quick pace, and wastes no time in highlighting its solo sections for Parker and his Quintet. A section near the end is particularly impressive, when Parker and Davis work in tandem. It’s busy-sounding, but impressively so, the sort of jazz tune that you just instinctively know is something special.

3: Lonely Woman. (1959) Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman’s landmark 1959 album “The Shape of Jazz to Come,” is a challenging and often avant-garde listening experience. There are a lot of rewards to be reaped from spending time with the album, however, specifically its opening track, “Lonely Woman.” Coleman’s performance on his plastic alto sax from Grafton occasionally sounds piercing and dissonant, yet it's partially this bold technique that makes “Lonely Woman” sound so fresh and exciting. There’s a melodic counterpoint to Coleman’s playing, as well, an earworm hook that can burrow into your brain, if you let it. “Lonely Woman” is experimental and “out there,” a remarkably prescient piece for 1959 that still sounds so fresh and contemporary today.

2: Hat and Beard. (1964) Eric Dolphy

Some albums are just classically cool. Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch!” is most definitely one of those LPs, with “Hat and Beard” serving as one of its musical calling cards. The tune showcases Dolphy’s “group” approach to composition for the album, and isn’t a self-serving exercise for the man’s alto sax. Still, Dolphy’s boisterous, avant-garde playing remains a standout aspect of this killer quintet. His opening solo on “Hat and Beard” is full of menacing stabs, yet never forgets to exert some tuneful harmony. The song as a whole is adventurous, full of instrumental prowess from Dolphy and his group. The vibraphone of Bobby Hutcherson, in particular, provides a nice counterpoint to the presence of Dolphy’s sax and Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet. It’s a true tour-de-force.

1: The Creator Has a Master Plan. (1969) Pharoah Sanders

Does the prospect of a thirty-plus minute jazz opus sound imposing to you?  Don’t be afraid, but instead allow Pharoah Sanders to take on a spiritual journey into the outer realms of jazz possibility. “The Creator Has a Master Plan” is the centerpiece of Sanders’ 1969 album “Karma,” and poses a daunting challenge for even the most experienced of saxophone enthusiasts. The tone of Sanders’ tenor playing ventures from pastoral melodic phrasings into fiery passages that would be admired by musicians from far outside the realms of free-jazz. It’s an old sentiment, but “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” truly does have something for everyone, from fans of jazz to prog, rock and everything in between. The experience is intense, sure, but 100% worth every minute.

This article is your ultimate guide to the Mount Everests of saxophone repertoire. We'll explore legendary tracks from across genres. Prepare to encounter lightning-fast passages, unconventional chord changes, and improvisational challenges that will push your musical boundaries.

So, grab yoursaxophone, fire up your practice session, and get ready to embark on a thrilling musical adventure. Let's chase the Coltrane and conquer the most challenging saxophone solos together!


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